Before he was recognized by Forbes as one of the world’s wealthiest hip-hop stars, before Jim Morrison and The Doors inspired him to start his “Strange” Music label and subsequent empire, even before he started rapping or B-boying in the streets of his native Kansas City, Tech N9ne dreamed of being a psychiatrist.
“I didn’t do it. I didn’t follow through, but as I get deeper into this thing I do musically, I realize that I’m my fans’ psychiatrist,” he says. “I am the psycho psychiatrist.”
The “King of Darkness” has perfected, and in some cases defined, a style of hip-hop unique to the Midwest—fast, percussive flows paired with themes rooted in relatable struggles. For more than a decade, many members of his devoted following have sought a form of musical healing through Tech’s sometimes off-kilter lyrics. Tech, who built his empire by touring through flyover country, is frequently greeted by fans that say his music changed their lives or even kept them from committing suicide.
But, in each one of these testimonials is a reminder of the bizarre end of his relationship with a girlfriend from Oklahoma City. Every time Tech’s custom Star Coach tour bus takes its annual cruise into the Sooner State, memories of a lost love rest in the back of his mind.
It was 2003. George W. Bush was still in his first term as president. There were no Tech N9ne music videos on Youtube because Youtube didn’t exist yet.
Tech was performing in Oklahoma City. At some point, he locked eyes with Nina McCollom, a bikini model with long brown hair and a tongue ring.
When Gauge Magazine featured her as a “Gauge Girl” and asked her to describe herself in four words, she offered: “outgoing, kinky, sweet as sugar, and different from the rest.” Never mind she didn’t follow directions very well. Her hobbies were modeling, volleyball, and partying.
“She was young, man,” Tech says. “This really beautiful Hungarian girl. So when you say Oklahoma, I’ve had ties there for a long time with Nina.”
McCollom, along with two of her friends, soon joined Tech’s road entourage.
“We all clicked so wonderfully that I made the girls from Oklahoma my official robe girls. Me and Nina were together from that point on,” Tech remembers.
Miami. Detroit. Des Moines. From city to city, raucous fans cheered as McCollom pulled Tech’s robe, unleashing one of hip-hop’s most electric live performers. But nights they hoped would never end eventually gave way to a screeching dawn.
“I hope she’s OK,” he says. “She’s a good girl. She just made a mistake.”
Like Tech, Chris Pitts also felt at home behind a microphone. But Pitts was not a rap star. He liked to spend his Thursday nights singing karaoke at Don Quixote Club in Oklahoma City. On April 2, 2009, it was ‘80s night and Pitts sang all of his favorite songs. He even convinced his girlfriend to get on stage for the first time.
“Chris had the time of his life doing what he loved to do, and that was singing,” according to the club’s karaoke host.
When they finished singing, Pitts and his girlfriend extended their date past midnight at a nearby IHOP. The couple sat in a booth near the window.
Minutes later, the dull hum of weeknight chatter erupted into chaos. According to news reports from that day, a sports utility vehicle drove through the wall and straight into Pitts.
The driver was an intoxicated 24-year-old Nina McCollom. She was uninjured in the accident.
Chris screamed for his girlfriend in a sea of broken glass. The couple was transported to a nearby hospital. Though his girlfriend survived her injuries, Pitts died shortly after his arrival.
McCollom, who had been studying criminal justice at University of Oklahoma, was once a detention officer with the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Department. She was booked in the same jail where she once worked. She wanted to be a police officer one day. That, or open a sanctuary for homeless dogs.
Instead, she was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and is still serving her seven-year prison sentence. Part of her sentencing includes 18 years of probation, and she will be banned from driving for the next 25 years. McCollom is scheduled for release in October 2017, with a parole hearing set for next year.
Tech still remembers the distressed, tearful call McCollom made to him before she was sentenced.
“It broke me down, man,” he says. “I had to hear her cry and say that she didn’t want to live anymore because she was going to jail for so long and she accidentally took someone’s life and didn’t mean to. It was hard. It was really hard.”
Though their relationship ended just prior to the incident in 2009, Tech was still on good terms with McCollom before the accident. In the song “Table and Chest Stress,” from his 2010 mixtape Bad Season, Tech raps:
My Hungarian honey’s locked up for manslaughter
Now her mother and father can’t even hug their damn daughter
Such an insane part of life really became harder
Tech says he tried to continue his phone conversations with her in prison, but eventually, he stopped answering. “I feel like shit to this day, but I couldn’t take it,” he says. “So hard to hear such a beautiful soul go through such hell so abruptly.”
Just a few weeks after the accident, Tech released his eighth studio album, Sickology 101. The next album he would get a chance to write, K.O.D. (King of Darkness), also from 2009, is widely considered his most melancholy project.
Since then, he’s dropped an album a year, sometimes two. “Even if it’s dark around me, the fact that I have the outlet to write it down and get it out to the people and help them, it becomes my light,” Tech says.
The independent rap mogul says he developed his Strange Music logo, a snake and bat insignia, as his own take on the medical caduceus. “The snake that you see on the medical staff. The bat is a creature of the night. Together, they bring healing to darkness through music,” he explains. And he’s constantly touring, always playing the psycho psychologist to his vast fandom, who relate to his constant themes of depression, broken marriages, and the deaths of close friends. “They like that closeness, man,” he says, “and we give it to them.”
But for a man who bares so much of his soul in his lyrics, it’s strange that the pain of others could be too much for him to take.
Originally published in This Land: 2015